A golden cup for a maiden winner. After 149 races where he came close with no cigar, Carlos Sainz finally did it, he was a Grand Prix winner at last, taking victory for Ferrari at Silverstone in a race where the title protagonists hit trouble.
It was also the boost he needed after a season that had seen him struggle to match teammate Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen for outright pace and had seen him retire in embarrassing fashion.
Luckily enough for Sainz, he had secured his future earlier in the season by signing a two-year extension at Imola. However, with 2024 fast approaching, 2023 could be the year that decides where Sainz goes next.
Needing to match Leclerc
In his first year at Ferrari, Sainz surprised many in the paddock by outperforming Leclerc by finishing on the podium four times and coming home an excellent fifth in the drivers’ standings, the best of the non-Red Bull-Mercedes drivers.
Over the winter, Ferrari’s then-team principal Mattia Binotto said there would be no number-one driver at the team marking a rare change of policy for an outfit so used to having clear number-one and number-two drivers.
Ferrari got 2022 off to a perfect start, with Leclerc leading home a 1-2 at the Bahrain GP. Whilst Leclerc added a win in Australia, Sainz had a mixed pair of flyaways, which included a third in Jeddah and an opening lap retirement in Melbourne.
Imola didn’t go much better with a crash in qualifying, setting the tone for the season that followed as Leclerc tried in vain to overhaul Verstappen’ lead in the championship Sainz frequently found himself on the third step of the rostrum.
With Leclerc now becoming the defacto number one driver, Sainz will need to up his game massively if he wants any chance of wrestling back a leadership role, particularly in qualifying, which has long been his weak spot.
Pressure from an old friend
Following the chaos of silly season, which saw a radically different-looking grid, 2023 promises to be a calmer summer before several drivers become out of contract in 2024.
Sainz is one of those, along with Sergio Perez, but his biggest competition could be Lando Norris, who is out of contract in 2025 and in high demand by F1‘s big three.
When Norris signed his contract, McLaren were seemingly a team on the rise, but throughout 2022, the team struggled to keep up with the big three, managing one podium at Imola.
With the team’s wind tunnel not ready for some years, Norris may be looking at some of his options if one of F1‘s big three buys him out of his contract.
Limited options if Ferrari cuts ties
If Ferrari does decide to let Sainz go a year early, his options are limited, with possible moves back to the old stomping grounds of McLaren and Red Bull seeming out of the question.
Mercedes could be an option, but Norris will be at the front of the queue to replace Lewis Hamilton, or they could elect to bring Esteban Ocon back to the team after a spell at Alpine.
Alpine may be a landing spot, however, as he impressed at Renault during his one-and-a-half-year spell with the team in 2017-18, and if Ocon or Pierre Gasly move on, Sainz may be a good fit.
Alfa Romeo, too, might be an option, particularly with Audi‘s impending takeover of the team and his family’s longstanding relationship with the company, but 2026 may come too late for him.
That leaves Aston Martin as his last potential landing spot; however, he will need Fernando Alonso to move on or Lance Stroll to be dropped; both scenarios aren’t realistic until at least 2025 due to Alonso signing a multi-year deal.
If none of F1‘s lower midfield teams are unable to find room for Sainz, it may spell the death knell for the young Spaniard’s F1 career if 2023 doesn’t live up to expectations.